Inspiration is a way to leverage this system as a DM to reward behavior you want to see at the game table. It’s suggested in the rulebooks that the DM award inspiration for a player playing his characters flaws and negative personality traits well, but the DM can award inspiration for other reasons as well.
Inspiration is one of the more awesome innovations of fifth edition. If you’re not using it as DM, you’re missing out.
You can hear more about this topic in the companion episode of the Game Master's Journey podcast.
How inspiration can enhance your game
You can use inspiration as a “carrot” to reward behavior and gameplay you want to see more of.
You can use inspiration as a buffer against unfriendly dice and unwanted character death. This works especially well if you use the variant rule that allows inspiration to be spent after the die roll but after the results are announced. This also works well if you use the variant allowing inspiration to be used multiple times on a roll.
Inspiration can be a great way to hedge against a TPK (total party kill). This is helpful if an encounter starts to go south due to no fault of the players—maybe you gave them an encounter that is too difficult, or maybe the players are just having a really unlucky night with the dice. In a situation like this, look for reasons to give PCs inspiration.
Don’t give out more than one inspiration per two PCs, and don’t give a PC more than two inspiration in a given game session. Allow players to learn from their mistakes. Let them suffer the consequences of bad decisions or foolish actions.
Inspiration increases player agency and gives players more of a feeling of control over what happens to their characters.
Additional guidelines for awarding inspiration
Award inspiration for outstanding background write-ups and character development at character creation. This allows a PC to begin play with inspiration, which can be very helpful to “squishy” first-level characters. This encourages players to put more thought into their character before the game starts, leading to a living, breathing character instead of just a collection of numbers on a piece of paper.
Award inspiration for in-character creations like journal entries, letters and sketches. These not only add depth to the characters, but add a lot to the immersion of the players. Make sure to judge such creations on effort and impact as opposed to talent. Not everyone is an artist. If a creation adds to the enjoyment of the players and GM, then it’s worthy of an award.
Award inspiration for anything a player or a PC does that goes above and beyond. Try to be consistent in the kinds of things you award inspiration for. However, also gradually expect more from your players as the campaign goes on. Just as a higher level character needs more xp to advance a level, you should expect more from higher level characters to earn inspiration.
Inspiration variants and optional rules
These are various ways to make inspiration more powerful and useful. Be careful using more than one of these. Some of them synergize well, but some combinations could get out of hand.
Consider using the optional rule that a PC can choose to use inspiration after the die is rolled but before the result is announced. In this variant, the PC rolls a d20. If she chooses to use inspiration, she then rolls a second d20 and takes the higher roll. This makes it easier to use inspiration without fear of “wasting” it and allows PCs to have it and use it when it really matters. This improves inspiration’s ability to buffer against bad die rolls and character death. This does make inspiration more powerful, but more importantly, it makes it more relevant.
Allow inspiration to stack with advantage. By default inspiration gives advantage, which makes it useless in when the PC already has advantage. Allowing inspiration to be used with advantage makes inspiration useful in more situations. This works best with the optional rule allowing inspiration use to be declared after the roll but before results are determined. The PC rolls with advantage as normal (rolls 2d20). If the player then chooses to use advantage, she rolls a third d20 and takes the highest of the three rolls. This makes inspiration more powerful. It’s especially useful to give an epic feel to the game or in campaigns that are very lethal and/or difficult.
Allow inspiration to be used multiple times on a roll. This requires the optional rule that inspiration can be used after the roll but before results are announced by the GM. If the player uses inspiration, but still rolls poorly, another player can give the first player his inspiration die, allowing the first player to roll another d20. This can be done as many times as the party has inspiration dice. This allows a PC to succeed at a very important roll by using all the party’s inspiration at once. This builds a sense of teamwork and camaraderie, as inspiration even more becomes a party resource as opposed to an individual PC resource. This won’t break the game because although the PC will very likely succeed at the important role, the party now has much fewer (or no) inspiration dice left to spend.
Spending inspiration allows you to automatically succeed at a death save. Or, a more powerful version, spending inspiration allows you to stabilize at 0 hit points. This is a great way to further buffer against PC death. This works great for a GM who wants a lower mortality rate and also rolls in the open (or doesn’t want to fudge rolls).
Use of inspiration during a short rest allows you to recover spell slots. You recover a number of spell levels equal to the maximum level spell you can cast divided by three. You can divide this among slots as you wish.
Example: Nikki’s character has access to sixth-level spells. She can spend her inspiration during a short rest to recover either one 2nd-level spell slot or two 1st-level spell slots.
This allows spell casters to use their spells a little more freely. Be aware that this slightly cheapens the wizard’s Arcane Recovery ability. The wizard’s ability is still better at most levels, but it becomes less unique.
Use of inspiration during a short rest allows you to recover some hit points. You can roll a number of hit dice equal to your tier.
Tier 1 is levels 1-4
Tier 2 is levels 5-10
Tier 3 is levels 11-16
Tier 4 is levels 17-20
Example: Jim’s character is a fifth level rogue with a constitution modifier of +1. He can spend his inspiration during a short rest to regain 2d8+2 hit points.
This might be a good option in a campaign with a lot of combats and few chances for long rests. This works well with the optional rule allowing multiple inspirations per PC.
Allow PCs to accumulate more than one inspiration during a session. Any inspiration in excess of one are lost at the end of the session. This makes inspiration (and any of the variants you use) much more powerful. You will want to limit the total number of inspiration the PC can accumulate. I suggest a limit equal to the PC’s tier.
Tier 1 (levels 1-4), 1 inspiration
Tier 2 (levels 5-10), 2 inspiration
Tier 3 (levels 11-16), 3 inspiration
Tier 4 (levels 17-20), 4 inspiration
Hero points can have many of the same advantages as inspiration, but they work differently. Hero points are overall less powerful than inspiration. If you decide to use hero points and inspiration, decide if you will allow both to be used on the same roll.
Hero point variants
Here are a couple ways to make hero points more powerful. This is especially useful if you’re using hero points as a replacement for inspiration.
Allow the hero point bonus die to scale as the Bardic Inspiration die does.
Levels 1-4, d6
Levels 5-9, d8
Levels 10-14, d10
Levels 15-20, d12
Allow more than one hero point to be spent on one roll.